Janus Metz, Armadillo
It’s difficult and perhaps impossible to imagine the experience of war from the vantage point of one’s living room, Sunday paper in hand. Besides, nine years after U.N. troops entered Afghanistan, who reads Week in Review analysis of the conflict with avid interest or watches cable-TV pundits exhorting us to stay the course or, alternatively, arguing the wisdom of withdrawal? Who, among our friends and family members, can explain with confidence why we entered a country the Soviets abandoned in defeat, what we are attempting to accomplish in the Hindu Kush, and what the parameters of success are? For the most part, the American public has remained indifferent to the costs, both financial and human, of waging war in far-away places, an attitude and habit of mind we shouldn’t expect a documentary film to correct, especially in the absence of a draft. Several layers of political complexity, plus economic doldrums at home, only further diffuse the public’s concentration on these out-of-sight, out-of-mind campaigns. But if a majority of the U.S. population was persuaded to watch Janus Metz’s gutty, hair-raising Armadillo, which Lorber Films opens on Friday, there’s a good chance that conversation might begin anew.
Winner of the Critics’ Week Grand Prize at Cannes last year, Metz’s documentary is an alarming, often harrowing grunt’s-eye view of combat operations in Afghanistan that he began shooting in February 2009. A native of Denmark currently residing in Brooklyn, the first-time feature filmmaker embedded himself alongside Danish soldiers at the international Armadillo military base in Helmand Province, tracking a handful of young men on their six-month tour of duty, from their homes to the frontlines. The results of his journey raise questions about war, society, foreign policy, and individual responsibility, not least because he captures the paradoxes of military reasoning and the psychological contours of those who serve with artful precision. After winning the Cannes prize, Metz opened the film in his home country, where its controversial depiction of active-duty soldiers partying with strippers before deployment, killing boredom in the barracks with porn and Call of Duty–style video games, and celebrating after gunning down three grenade-stunned Taliban fighters in a ditch led to a high-profile ethics investigation by government officials, who perhaps naively wondered, “Is this what our war looks like?” Crisply shot on RED and Canon 5D cameras by Lars Skree, whose lens fixes on the faces of men in repose and in wounded distress, sticking close whether mid-firefight or in wary conversation with locals, Armadillo observes without condemning, depicting the everyday concerns, fears, and thrills of these recruits with a dispassionate distance, while bearing witness to the complex reality of a soldier’s life.
Filmmaker spoke with Metz about ambivalence, the anthropology of combat, and the seductive allure of life on the frontlines.
Filmmaker: Let’s talk about the relationship of ambivalence you establish in observing these soldiers from the homefront to Helmand Province, and the ambivalence we feel as viewers entering their world.
Metz: I think “ambivalence” is a key word for Armadillo. From the outset, I was interested in the split image of the soldier as both hero and undertaker. And it references what the Western nations are [doing] in Afghanistan, trying to create peace with one hand and war with the other. So it transpires in the film on a political and also a personal level. Ambivalence [runs] all the way through, from the way the soldiers leave home — it’s scary and frightening [for them] but also exciting — to the way the war is at the same time seductive and repulsive. There’s ambivalence in the way these soldiers might have crossed a line and [are] too brutalized to distinguish right and wrong, but might also have found themselves in a [combat] situation where they have no other choice. These ambivalences are central to the film and to the notion of war in general.
Filmmaker: It’s emblematized in the poster art for the film, too, which depicts a grenade and a human heart fused together. How did you separate your personal politics from the demands of storytelling here?
Metz: At the end of the day, I’m the one who conveys the portrait, and it’s all filtered through my temper. But the way I approach my films is always a meeting between me and some external experience. The film is crafted through my process and vision, but it’s not a far-fetched fantasy — these are real people and real reactions. I guess it’s a question of ethics, the responsibility you feel for the subject, and how you balance that as a director. Personally, I couldn’t help but see the war in Afghanistan as a fall from grace.
Filmmaker: Is that what you had in mind when you conceptualized this project?
Metz: Not directly. I went out with an open mind to investigate what the dynamics and paradoxes of staying in Afghanistan are. The way the individual human mind is challenged by the brutal, cynical pragmatism of war, and how that clashes with some sort of innocent naiveté were central. It was a reaction to the experiences I had but also the research I did before going, interviewing a number of soldiers who had come home from Afghanistan, talking to experts and military strategists. I view the making of a documentary film as compiling information and images that, along the way, tend to find a structure and a narrative. If you’re talking about the mythological structure of this narrative, then you could say, well, the fallen person is also insightful, whether or not that’s good for human beings.
Filmmaker: Another level that I know is interesting to you, as a former student of visual anthropology, is the observation of behavior. How did that training give shape to your process?
Metz: I think through the issue of representation — how we put people on the screen. Anthropology and documentary filmmaking have a lot of parallels. You need your description to be rich enough to transcend to audiences or leaders. That’s also when you’re talking about the politics of representation and how to make cinema, how we try to work with images that point to mental and psychological experience. This film is about the minds of soldiers just as much as the concrete physical realities of Afghanistan.
Filmmaker: I’m thinking, for instance, of the way you use thrash metal for editorial purposes early in the film, when Mads and the others are partying with strippers on the eve of their deployment.
Metz: In general, I’m not into using commentary music, but in this particular case, it felt right to send them off with that type of energy. There was so much excitement on their behalf and such a great pull, that seductive power of war. What does it mean that young people venture out for these kinds of experiences — facing death — and why do they keep going back?
Filmmaker: Some of the documentaries we’ve seen about Afghanistan, like Restrepo and Hell and Back Again, were made by seasoned photojournalists who’ve been to war zones before. But you put your life at risk to capture these soldiers’ stories without that kind of experience.
Metz: It’s a choice you make. If you want to know anything about war, from the anthropological perspective, you have to put yourself in that situation. I don’t think there’s any way you can prepare yourself for it. There’s a lot of war reporters out there for whom this has become almost a lifestyle. I like to believe that since neither [DP] Lars Skree nor I have that experience it strengthens the film. Sometimes it takes an outsider to see the inside. From the beginning there was a strong concern for us not to cross the line and become soldiers, to become blindfolded to the machinery of the army. There was a concern to [frame] the experiences the soldiers had rather than plunge right in and [assume] their rationality. It was about feeling slightly more distance.
Filmmaker: And yet I’m sure you couldn’t help but develop intimacy with the young men you were filming.
Metz: Of course, that was a necessity, and it’s part of the process of any real, observational, life-sized documentary. Staying in a military camp for three and a half months creates quite strong relationships. I think we made it very clear that we’re a film crew, though.
Filmmaker: The fact that you were allowed to accompany them on these missions and then to have experienced the most controversial incident in the film — the aftermath of a close-range firefight with Taliban gunmen — must have made you feel like one of them.
Metz: If I had become one of them totally, then I would have cut every detail in the film that suggested this was not “by the book.” They might have crossed a very fine line and actually committed war crimes. On that level, Armadillo really shows you the dark side of war and how it sometimes triggers demonlike physical energies, archaic energies in humans, particularly young men. If we are ever to challenge the legitimacy of war, I think it’s important to circulate that [kind of] imagery. This is not a one-off incident. It happens all the time. Here in the U.S. you have many examples, like the latest story on the “kill team,” and prior to that Abu Ghraib. I think what Armadillo really shows is this process of dehumanizing of soldiers that eventually leads to that. They misuse the power they’re given over life and death. It can be very hard to control that power, especially when you’re 20 years old.
Filmmaker: Given the prevalence of imagery that already circulates in our societies, particularly among young men, how do you simply avoid reproducing what they’re already familiar with from video games and war films, that whole stream of images they’re already bombarded with?
Metz: It’s a very difficult question, because I’m sure a lot of young people who see Armadillo are going to head straight to the enrollment office. That’s exactly what they want –- a kick, a kind of thrill that the film certainly portrays. So I don’t have a clear answer for that. It’s always in the eyes of the beholder. Just as many people will find it repulsive and refrain from it. I don’t see myself as a politician or as someone who has to impose a certain morality on my audiences because it’s all in the film. I show myself as the author and what my ethics are but I can’t guarantee every reception of the film. Paradoxically, you find some of the most diehard fans of antiwar movies in the army. They all watch Apocalypse Now and films that deal directly with disillusionment and primitivization. It’s a paradox I’m not sure how to overcome.
Filmmaker: There were repercussions after the film debuted in Denmark last year. Where did it all lead?
Metz: Well, there was an official investigation opened against the soldiers in the film, but no one was convicted. When I came back with the material from Afghanistan, I sat down with an expert on these matters to determine whether there was any documentation of a war crime. And the conclusion was that there was none. So in order for them to be convicted, they would have had to confess. And as you can see very clearly in the film, they choose to tell a particular story about that incident, leaving out other aspects. So I’ve always regarded this investigation as a political statement. I was pretty sure these soldiers were going to walk. Even to me, this is not a clear-cut image, it’s a grey zone. You could just as well argue, as the army has done and the soldiers do in the film, that they didn’t have any choice. But as a filmmaker, it was more interesting to me that these grey zones happen all the time in the war.
Filmmaker: Why, after ten years of engagement and billions spent, not to mention all the cost in human life, do you think the public remains indifferent to the war in Afghanistan?
Metz: Afghanistan is very far away and we’ve managed to demonize these people to such an extent that it’s legitimate to wage this war. After 9/11 you could say the nation regained its innocence and its legitimacy to kill, basically. Now that it’s become muddy waters, I think there’s a moment where people maybe think it’s become all too complex. There are no real villains and no real heroes. That would be my best guess.